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AToday: Magazine Archives: May/Jun 1997: articles

The Road Personally Traveled

A Christian?s reflections on his spiritual journey


We spoke across two bowls of soup at The Good Earth, our first conversation in two decades. Because we had been very close friends in high school, it unsettled me to learn that her life had been disquieting, even wrenching, since her college years.

"I set out to find meaning, a pattern of truth, that could stretch as a seamless whole from my most private reflections clear out to the cosmos." She spoke with a quiet passion that reminded me again why our teachers had regarded her as likely the brightest student to have attended our Adventist boarding academy. She never took life lightly.

"I read famous authors and studied leading scholars. I even joined an ashram for several years to absorb the full teachings of a noted guru. I looked for some authority who could tell me the truth. But through many painful experiences, I learned I could trust none of them. And only then did I discover"?and she looked intently at me, the pastor? "that I could determine for myself what is so."

Though I had built a successful career that included warning people about the dangers of following other religious leaders, I was not ready to include my own religious tradition in that caveat. More precisely, I was not ready to include myself. I had several graduate degrees in theology and knew Greek and Hebrew. Surely I was in some ways more qualified to define ultimate reality, to answer her questions, than she was for herself. If not, what of my career? The empowering of a self-defined, responsible person to pursue her own spiritual meaning-making surely could not take priority over the primacy of faith-community-as-authority.

Church: Pathway to Achievement

In the sleep-robbed nights that followed our conversation, I began to allow that not all of us have experienced our church-of-origin in the same way. For some of us, it has been an early pathway for achievement, a reinforcement of early hopes, fears and attachments. It had focused youthful energies on worthy goals and lasting values. For those who found ease with religious terms and forms, it was certain, gold-plated affirmation, a recognized form of divine approval. It offered campus leadership and a promising career pathway. And especially for us young men, with our Alpha Male need for control, a religion built on cognitive truth-claims offered ample opportunities to Be Right.

For others, however, their faith community contained elements that were toxic, draining, confining. Especially for some women, it may have reinforced their self-image as the silent, submissive listener. Some had internalized the often-heard instructions to "distrust self," to be suspicious of one?s feelings, intuitions, reasoning, and one?s perception of data. They would see their faith community as a set of unchosen attachments, of unexamined fears and prejudices. With dismay, some came to realize that the only alternative to trusting themselves is to trust someone else, some definer of reality as truly finite as themselves.

My friend at The Good Earth had cautioned me that one cannot count a faith community as universally good?neither that it is often good for all people, nor even that it is always good for some people. The truth is that our faith tradition comes as a mixed bag. And for some, that mix as a composite whole is hard to defend.

A favorite Adventist activity (and certainly so among the readers of this journal) is to carefully define what one means when saying, "I am an Adventist." We take careful pains to differentiate ourselves from those at the other end of the liberal/conservative spectrum, from those who voted otherwise on women?s ordination, from those whose fundamentalism is more explicit than our own. Indeed, we each claim a large scope of freedom to choose for ourselves how to appropriate our faith traditions.

A key step in being a spiritual adult is to own this fact. The foundations of personal spirituality require a new level of honesty and candor in admitting that we do in fact each decide for ourselves what is so. It means admitting that, even as we eschew those who have defined truth differently from the way we do, we are engaged in exactly the same process. Claiming allegiance to a faith community only narrows the options; it does not end the process. We must admit that every perception of the Divine has human fingerprints on it and can be held only tentatively. It means that even the most cognitive, doctrinally-grounded, key-text-based of religions are still a mixture of voices, and that no members are exempt from the need to select from among those voices. Those who do not admit this are targets for the next cult.

I am persuaded that it is a vulnerable spiritual infant who does not own the high right to set one?s own spiritual course. The forces which shape our spiritual values are multiple. They include other thoughtful people, caring parents and friends, great books, favorite songs, and enduring religious traditions. Personal spirituality begins when one accepts the individual need to assign each of these forces some weight, some priority, some relative power.

I?m Accountable For My Choices

This focus on the individual?s right, the solitary soul?s necessity, to process truth for one?s self is not some easy liberalism. It is not an adolescent rebellion against the authority of the group. Indeed, this is the single most frightening aspect of adult spirituality: I am accountable! There is no one else to blame. No one else is my specialist. There is no voice more penetrating than my own. No one "gets" my questions as clearly as I do. No one has to live more fully with the consequences of bad choices (or the rewards of good choices) than do I.

Indeed, as Erich Fromm argued in Escape From Freedom, the dreadful accountability of individual freedom is so terrifying that most people will gladly hand it over to anyone who claims privileged access to the Divine. Many religions create a powerfully co-dependent blend of those who need certainty sitting at the feet of those who promise to deliver certainty. And neither side dares tamper with the formula.

But this is not spirituality.

A Personal Definition

What, then, do I mean when I speak of spirituality? (Please recall that this is my personal narrative, not a mandate or directive for others.) For me, spirituality has to do with a process of personal growth and becoming. This is not some self-centered pop-psychology, but our awareness of the infinite value of life, of living, of fulfilling in the highest sense the meaning and purpose for being alive. It matters profoundly in the context of all life and all time. This longing we feel for wholeness leads us ultimately, therefore, to transcendent issues.

Spirituality is my recognition of an inner longing to be more authentic and more honest, more real and compassionate, more useful in this actual, present world. These inner passions are far more personal than the "tinkering with ideas as with toys" that once flavored much of my religion. There is less concern about thinking a certain way so that a later life can be awarded. Instead, I am more absorbed with the majesty of life right now. And if living this life with fullness and relevance doesn?t matter to the gatekeepers of eternity, then I?ll take my chances elsewhere.

It is not easy for me to admit that I had become a specialist at living other people?s lives. But now, I discover, I get to be a specialist at living my own life. I knew well what the community of faith expected of me. I had left little room for defining my own self, casting my own directions. And while this discovery is not, in itself, a core piece of spirituality, there is clearly no true spirituality without it. For spirituality is either a self-directed, self-validated journey or it is not a journey at all. While this ownership of self-direction has not made me indifferent to my community of origin, it has lessened its ability to define my spiritual agenda. Some have regarded this as indifference on my part. And I understand that concern. Religious leaders (such as myself) have taught us that, whatever we may say about personal freedom of thought, in the end we must be loyal to the group. But even though we all seem endowed with a certain primordial longing for attachment and belonging, it is not automatic that this will always find expression in a church fellowship. Church-joining is not innate to spiritual life.

I have embraced something of a self-imposed discipline to see if I can discuss my spirituality without relying on the paradigms and terminology vested with meaning by usage within a church?any church. Can I challenge my students, for example, to embrace spiritual goals without their thinking I?m pushing a church-joining agenda, or requiring allegiance to a Christian worldview? Is spirituality a universal human capacity that can be evoked without needing a prior catechism in doctrinal studies from any denomination or religion? Does the sacred in fact blend seamlessly with the whole of life? I believe that it does. And my private discipline has worked.

Words Deliver Insight or Abuse

If, on the other hand, an appeal to familiar religious terminology and rituals adds power and insight to an individual?s spiritual becoming, then I rejoice in their use. The story of Jesus will continue to call attentive hearers to new levels of acted love, justice and freedom from oppression?even though his story has often been exploited in the interests of preserving power.

I have become increasingly aware how some religious terminology has become a vehicle for abuse and oppression. Fundamentalists of almost every persuasion have evoked God?s endorsements on their oppression of women, their stultifying of the scientific process, their disregard for the dignity of life, and their arrogance in presuming to speak directly on behalf of the Divine.

This rethinking of the locus of spiritual conversation, this shift away from "sacred language" toward a vocabulary more responsive to human experience, has led me to invest my energies toward more pragmatic goals. For example, I can stand in a pulpit and assert almost anything I wish about God, and no one will likely know whether or not I have spoken the truth. I can assert that God saved a certain person from a fatal illness, caused a certain calamity, predicted a certain event through prophecy, answered a prayer in this way, and so on. And no one can test my assertions.

On the other hand, I can say that children thrive when their parents listen to them with respect, free from judgment and anger, while still holding them accountable for their choices. And we can watch children benefit as a result. We can advocate that all humans have inherent value, regardless of gender or race, and see hostility cease as this truth is embraced. Much God-talk can be void of all mechanisms for validation. But I can be held directly accountable for the veracity of what I say on the human scene. As John said, "No one has ever seen God, but God himself is manifested among us when we love one another. (I John 4:12). When I stepped back from being a professional theologian, I found myself being held to a more immediate standard of process.

The theological enterprise in the Christian tradition has, in my observation, become quite irrelevant, detached, even irresponsible. I am weary of the ideological food fights launched by those who believe they can merchandise in certainty. I am far more fascinated with the sense of mystery that transcends certainty. I am seldom inclined any longer to tell people what they should believe to be so. I am far more inclined to invite them to stand with me in awe of an unfolding awareness of life and the vast complexity of the universe.

Ambiguity Embraces Mystery

I have learned that I can function quite well within ambiguity, to say with lightness and freedom, "I really don?t know." I am continually surprised at how few things I really need to know for sure. It is far more honest for me to embrace the complexities of life, the unknowns in the face of mystery, than to create bumper-sticker-size truisms around which True Believers can rally.

For that same reason, I find it difficult to complete sentences that begin with, "I am a . . ." Most titles which name a group or ideology carry too much foreign cargo. They are like rubber gloves over my fingerprints, dulling my identity.

Similarly, I am not confident that ancient civilizations held more privileged access to the Divine than does our own. I doubt that pre-scientific understandings are better vehicles of faith than the post-rational vision of the universe available to us today. While an appropriate commitment to the scientific method of inquiry holds great threat to fundamentalist religion, it holds immense promise for one?s spirituality, for it continually brings us against the mysterious upper limits of reality.

The Community of Faith

None of us start a spiritual journey ex nihilo. Most of us have a specific history within a faith community that has shaped our vision and given definitions to our words about ultimate things. We can tell our stories to our church-based friends, and they recognize the feelings. They remember the same rituals, subscribe to the same patterns of delights and fears, appreciate the same heroes of the faith, and retell the same founding stories. This is very basic stuff in all our lives. And we do well to celebrate its power.

As we take increasing ownership over the direction and depth of our spiritual journeys, we may not always find full congruence with the expectations of the faith community. We may conclude that some of what we learned about fear and guilt, about superiority and exclusivity, is groundless. But I doubt that this makes necessary a complete break from one?s formative network. I have found it useful to supplement my need for community with what I regard as "boutique fellowships"?those serendipitous, one-of-a-kind encounters with a person of depth, when joy and honesty break forth in the unplanned moments of real life.

And I claim the right, indeed the necessity, to review what I have drawn from my faith community, setting aside that which does not nurture spirituality. Belonging to a church is not an end in itself. It is a means to an end. And that end has much to do with the spiritual depth and vitality of its members. Often, the same community that presses its members up against the boundaries of the eternal may also teach them about favoritism, judgment, and pettiness. These are dynamics that kill spirituality. They must be discerned and removed.

But then I come full circle. I cannot both take ownership of my spiritual health, and then blame my faith community for anything which stultifies spirituality. Accountability ends blaming and judgment of others. If I am free from asking my church?s permission to embrace a new spiritual insight, I am also free from blaming it if that permission is not freely granted. I need never view the church as some sinister entity, bent on controlling my life; for it has no controls I have not granted it. And the implied social contract between myself and the church, often formed in my youth, can always be reviewed, recast.

Spirituality feels like a perpetual thrust into new territory. There is less that is familiar about the journey than I often wish. So I have come to enjoy those people, those experiences, those aspects of my own religious heritage, which understand my sometimes bewildered gaze. I need people who will hold my sweaty hands, but never call me to retreat. And occasionally I find such fellow-travelers within my faith community!

Dick Winn is vice-president for academic affairs at Western Business College in Sacramento, California. He holds an M.A. and an M.Div. from Andrews University and has done doctoral studies in human development at U.C. Berkeley. His e-mail address is 

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